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A failure before 9am – and what to do about it

“I don’t like Mondays!” – as Bob Geldof once shrieked.

In fact, that is not true of me, but rather it is the case that I don’t like mornings, and Monday morning used to be the most brutal of the when I was still on the employee treadmill. Even at almost five years’ remove (how can that be???), I am still relieved to realise on a Sunday evening that I won’t have to gird any part of my anatomy to face the new week. 

In order to help me wake up of a morning, I have developed a habit of reading a few articles in the online newspaper, and then completing several different puzzles – simple crosswords, and various word and number tests. This is to ensure my enduring mental agility, and – full disclosure – is a bit of an excuse to sit for longer over my mug of black coffee. However, it is not a reliable way of raising my mood, should that be needed. Indeed, it is with some degree of irritation that I have to report the stark “You have failed” notice that flashed on my screen once again this morning. Do these online games people have no sensitivity? Do they not realise the enormous weight of disappointment already accrued at the realisation my 6-day successful streak has now been broken? Now made worse by a bald and damningly cruel accusation of failure. Before 9 o’clock. 

I HAVE FAILED. AND IT IS NOT YET DECENT O’CLOCK. Might as well go back to bed then.

Not just any cat…an occasional distraction from my hard work rehearsing Brahms.

Still reeling and licking my metaphorical wounds, I am foolishly tempted to essay yet again to raise a purr from Daughter J’s still-resident cat – ONCE he has purred for me, in nearly eight months, ONCE! – to be treated instead to some steadfastly regular feline heavy breathing, a look of disdain, and a lingering odour which suggests he was mostly aiming to use me as toilet paper. Ah well. Another fail.

Why do I fail? There’s a big question for a Saturday. I apologise for the following pseudo-philosophical meanderings that have emerged as a result.

Sometimes I just can’t do a thing. I try to persuade myself that failure is a great way to learn – I spent several months’ worth of Richmond Park walks dedicated to Elizabeth Day’s popular podcast ‘How to Fail’ listening to a range of celebrities and other worthies discussing how their failings had made them stronger/better/happier-in-the-long-run etc – and I still think this is an excellent theory (and podcast).  But, if I’m totally honest, I give up too easily and just beat myself up for the failure and move on. I am only just now confirming to myself that, with a bit more effort, I can achieve a little more than I have been accustomed to accepting from myself. Except, maybe, in areas of dexterity where I fear this old dog will remain totally unable to acquire new fine-motor-skill-related tricks.

There has been some recent evidence to support the notion that there is merit in trying that little bit harder. A big example this year was taking the risk to join the choir tour in Italy this summer. As documented in this very blog, it showed me that I could take myself out of my comfort zone and not make a complete pratt of myself. I somehow forced myself to try harder at learning the music. Fear of falling completely flat on my face led me to work extremely hard at learning the music beforehand. Endlessly, repeatedly, over and over until my eyes boggled and my throat was sore.

Last year, this was also proved on a smaller scale in a different, but related, way when I was quite sure I would not be able to learn all the words for a folk concert but in fact, when it came to it, I managed perfectly well. I truly thought that, never having been very good at learning stuff by rote, and struggling even in my forties to remember lines and song lyrics for Parents’ Panto (even when I’d written the stupid lines myself), I was incapable of word retention.

But, when really knuckling down and forcing myself to concentrate – because I had promised someone else that I would, or because I’d foolishly committed to something I was actually unsure I could deliver – I have found a modicum of success. We are not talking miracles here, but definitely better results than I might have expected. Maybe this word-learning encouraged me to think big with the choral stuff. I don’t know.

I have often wondered about my work ethic. At school, people would call me a swot. This upset me, because I didn’t think I was a swot. I was initially just very able for my age. I was also obedient so I would make sure I completed any set tasks by the time they were supposed to be completed and I was always well-behaved in class (which I’m sorry to say I made up for at home, but that’s a different story). So, I handed work in on time although would try not to make that too obvious to classmates who hadn’t, and didn’t mess about in class – hence, I was a swot. Perhaps that sounds a fair description at this remove – hmm – and of course we can’t rule out the possibility that I was a deeply unpleasant child in other ways, although I’m fairly sure I kept that part of me exclusively for home. Apart from when I scratched a small chunk out of the school tearaway, but then, naturally, I became much more popular as a result. Life, eh?

Anyhow, I only did the bare minimum to get by. I didn’t spend any more time than I had to on anything. In primary school, I loved learning and found everything easy. I was the oldest in my year, which helped, and easily finished the curriculum as far as I was allowed to progress, but the authorities refused to let me move up a year – and I have been blaming that for my laziness ever since! In my third year at the local Infants’ School, I heard other children read, marked papers and helped the school secretary type and Roneo the letters to parents. I still recall with shame a typo I made in one of the letters. I was seven, for goodness sake!

But, although I provided some useful help and in so doing must have acquired some extra skills for myself, I was not pushed much beyond my classmates, or stretched or challenged. So, when I got to Senior school – the local comprehensive – I was still able to pick things up quickly and breezed through the first few years,  still never expecting to work too hard. When inevitably it got harder, I didn’t like having to spend time working things out. Or researching subjects and spending ages poring over books to embellish my answers and stretch myself. Or learn facts which weren’t immediately interesting to me. Gradually, this reflected in my results and also in the choice of subjects I decided to take. I dropped History as soon as I possibly could. All that learning of dates and extra reading! (I’d rather read novels.) Also, Physics which seemed far too complicated after a year or two. Maths was great – but only up to a point, beyond which I reckoned my grey matter would never be able to compute anything at all. I laughed when they asked me to do A-level. I one-hundred-and-ten-percent knew that I had reached my limit and preferred to bumble along in the Arts.

I’m not saying that I could have got a first at university if I’d worked a bit harder, or had a more glittering career if I’d pulled my finger out, nor do I think I wanted or needed either of those things, but I probably should have put more effort in from time to time. I came to realise I was not that bright after all, and didn’t have the tools to knuckle down and make the best of what skills I actually did have. I sometimes wonder whether, with a bit more perseverance and practice perhaps I’d still be able to play the piano. Or speak Russian (or even understand a bit – how can I have forgotten so much?). Or be a published writer. I fear it is too late for the first two of those, although I am determined to learn at least one song at which I can accompany myself at the keyboard. But maybe I should make a bigger attempt at the writing. Given the ever-increasing length of time between these blog-posts, maybe this too is a lost cause, but I won’t give up just yet.

In other ways, I need to cut myself a bit more slack though. Despite not trying very hard, I often set myself stupidly high standards. A recent example: I was horrified to find myself completely wiped out, after a mere four hours sitting outside in the cold, rain and wind issuing fuel vouchers to more than thirty people, with only a short break to run (yes, run) the few hundred yards home to print some more vouchers when my generous pre-printed supply ran out (stuffing down a muesli bar to stave off hunger pains whilst the printer did its churning) and then lolloping back to sit in splendid isolation for a further hour still interviewing and issuing vouchers whilst colleagues cleared up around me. ‘I’m being ridiculous and dramatic’, I told myself as I staggered through my front door again, leaving others to finish the tidying. And then I thought for a few minutes, and decided that actually most people would surely be feeling the same. I’m in my sixties not a teenager, I’ve had almost no food and just a few sips of water, and many others would have given up or not even volunteered in the first place. (Now, of course, I’m simply showing off. Sigh! Give yourself a break, woman!) I allowed myself a larger than normal snack and an extended sit-down – but no nap. Not going to Napland yet.

Just last Sunday, there was an article in the newspaper about our collective failure of concentration and our ever-shortening attention spans, what with the internet, YouTube and … well, I read most of it… got the gist… Probably means I’m normal…

…but let’s not be complacent. I reckon I’m going to try to buck the trend and focus more, concentrate for longer and try harder to see what I can achieve.

And so, by 2025 (not rushing things, but equally being mindful of my already short personal shelf-life) I will either be the highly acclaimed writer of a dazzling new musical*, an improbable comedy TikTok star (although that would mean reinstating TikTok on my elderly phone which might kill it altogether) or your next Prime Minister.

Clearly, there’s a decision yet to be made about exact direction of travel. 

*Am in one of those ridiculous phases where a show has sparked a small obsession. A group visit to Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre in London was so good that I have been playing the soundtrack on repeat on Spotify ever since. The show was written by its cast and has worked its way up from the fringes to the West End. It is so clever, and at the moment what I would most like to be able to do is to write something equally amazing (then perform it, of course – hahahahahahahahaha)


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